Indonesia: An Act Free of Choice

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Indonesia, once a bastion of noisy self-righteous anticolonialism, last week formally took over a remote, primitive piece of real estate that can hardly be considered anything but a colony. By means of a blatantly rigged referendum, the Indonesians annexed West Irian, the western half of the rugged South Pacific island of New Guinea.

Why anyone would want the impoverished, California-size region nearly defies understanding. Indeed, the government of Indonesia's President Suharto, who commanded the forces ordered to "liberate" West Irian from Dutch control in 1962, long ago lost any real enthusiasm for the remote and unrewarding territory. But Indonesia's sense of Manifest Destiny was involved. For decades, Indonesians have always rallied to the cry "From Sabang to Merauke!" —from the westernmost island of the 3,000-island archipelago to the easternmost hamlet in West Irian. Said Frans Kaisieppo, the governor of West Irian: "It has become a religious conviction."

One, Two, Many. It will require more than mere conviction to govern the area. The 800,000 Papuan tribesmen of West Irian may be the world's simplest people. They live near-naked in Stone Age savagery in high, roadless valleys surrounded by nameless, unmapped tropical forests. In some of their 150 dialects, counting goes no further than "one, two, many . . . " Their weapons are stone axes, 16-ft. spears and poisoned arrows. Cannibalism, headhunting and tribal warfare are common.

Mourners offer amputated fingers as funeral gifts. Favorite adornment includes bird-of-paradise feathers, skulls on strings, and gourds to cover the genitals. The Papuans are also skilled craftsmen in wood and industrious raisers of pigs, sweet potatoes, tobacco, sugar cane, ginger and bananas.

In 1962, after a brief comic-opera war launched by Indonesia's former President Sukarno, The Netherlands reluctantly handed over West Irian to a United Nations caretaker administration. The arrangement, negotiated by veteran U.S. Diplomat Ellsworth Bunker, promised the Papuans "an act of free choice" within seven years on whether to reject or retain Indonesian control. The formula was designed to save Western face, but the "free choice" has proved lamentably free of choice.

Unanimous Vote. The mechanics of the annexation vote were left to the Indonesians. They immediately rejected the one man, one vote formula, largely because the few thousand literate Papuans of the coastal settlements, who had prospered under the Dutch, were obviously hostile. Instead, the Indonesians imported their village tradition of musjawarah, meaning roughly consultations leading to consensus. For this purpose, they chose 1,025 "people's representatives," who allegedly spoke for all Papuans. The Indonesian army warned that it would not be gentle with dissidents. "Many of us didn't agree to Indonesian control, but we were afraid," one of the delegates told TIME Correspondent David Greenway, who visited West Irian last week. Others were wooed with gifts of salt, tobacco, cloth, beer, outboard motors and junkets to Djakarta. Between intimidation and persuasion, the Indonesians managed to win a unanimous vote in favor of annexation.

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